Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?

16 – 25 November 2007

Thessaloniki may be an ancient city, but much of its history has been effaced by time, war and relentless modern building, its remaining ancient monuments rising incongruously out of a sea of mid-20th-century apartment blocks, seemingly stranded and out-of-place. But the city – energetic, vibrant and down-to-earth – is situated on the edge of the Thermaic Gulf, and its attention is focused on its curving waterfront and bowl-shaped bay. For a visitor, the gulf, like any body of water in Greece, feels magical, invoking legends and other associations.

Thessaloniki’s film festival partakes in dramatic fashion of this orientation towards the gulf – its headquarters are located on a pier jutting out into the water, populated by an array of old commercial buildings. Entering the complex through a gate and making your way down the pier with its rows of buildings arrayed on each side, you feel (appropriately) like you’ve wandered onto a movie-studio or -set, full of lights, action, and, above all, smoke (no second-hand smoke laws here).

Approaching its 50th year, Thessaloniki is a large, sprawling festival, with hundreds of films new and old. But in choosing my itinerary through the program, I was wooed away from many of the contemporary films by the extensive retrospective devoted to the fascinating and singular William Klein (one of the two filmmakers honoured with special tributes at the festival, along with John Sayles). Klein’s photographic career has been amply celebrated, but with the possible exception of Muhammad Ali: The Greatest (1960) (a terrific document of Ali at his height, but also among Klein’s more conventional movies), his films have been neglected, perhaps not in France where he’s made his home for decades, but certainly in his native U.S. (a situation that’s hopefully soon to change, with Criterion readying a release of a box-set containing three of his most memorable works).

Mister Freedom

The festival’s generous selection highlighted the two apparently paradoxical approaches Klein has alternated between through the years – the documentaries (Grand soirs et petits matins [1978]; the Ali film; Eldridge Cleaver [1970]), which find Klein, Zelig-like, consistently at the heart of the convulsive events transforming French and American society in the ‘60s and ‘70s; and the highly stylised, cartoon-like satirical films (Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo?/Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? [1966]; Mister Freedom [1969]; Le Couple témoin [1977]), with their lovingly created artificial worlds and their lavish attention to set and costume design. It’s possible to connect these two strands to a similar bifurcation in Klein’s photography, with the documentaries reflecting Klein’s street photography, and the stylised films extending from his fashion work. This may ring true in a broad sense, as an indication of the two poles in Klein’s artistic sensibility. But these two poles are not as far apart as they appear. The documentary films truly do feel like extensions of his renowned street photography, taken in New York, Paris and throughout the world. But these photos are famous for their radical, totally unique approach – both photos and films alike make no claims to objectivity, using wide-angle lenses to thrust us into the worlds being recorded, and expressionistically exaggerating many of their subjects, until they resemble figures from a George Grosz painting rather than a conventional portrait or documentary. And as hermetic as the satirical films may appear, they are among the most unapologetically political, socially critical films of their period, especially Mister Freedom, Klein’s hilariously broad, inventive and bitter attack on American arrogance and militarism (whose satire, needless to say, hasn’t aged in the slightest).

Of the documentaries, The Greatest is best-known, and not without reason. Klein had an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time, and he put this skill to best use here – Klein’s original intention in embarking on the project was simply to film a heavy-weight championship fight, and his first attempt was for the fight between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston. When that proved impossible, he shifted his attention to Liston vs Ali, ultimately documenting that momentous event with a remarkable degree of access to the Ali camp, the result of a very happy coincidence: according to Klein, on his flight to Miami to film the fight he found himself seated next to Ali’s mentor Malcolm X – they struck up a conversation, hit it off, and the rest is history.

Ali, at his most charismatic, is of course the anchor of the film, but Klein focuses as much on Ali’s context and the significance of his rise as he does on Ali himself. The Greatest includes perceptive interviews with Malcolm and other commentators, but it also highlights the structure of the sport, the community of rich, mostly Southern white men who finance, and essentially own, the boxers – a group threatened by Ali’s self-confidence and autonomy.

Much less well-known, but equally remarkable, is Klein’s document of the May ’68 protests in Paris, Grand soirs et petits matins, edited soon after the events themselves, but unreleased for a decade thereafter. Grand soirs (as well as Le Couple témoin) was shown without English subtitles, so some of it was lost on me. But it’s clearly a remarkable document, using footage of the confrontations between police and students as punctuation, but focusing on the meetings and debates in which the students formulate their strategies and respond to the changing situation. The film conveys the events of May ’68 not so much through the violence and conflicts that are so well-known but through the participants’ own words and thoughts. As with The Greatest a year later, Klein found himself at the centre of a crucial historical event – seized upon by the students, who wanted a record of their side of events, but who were suspicious of the members of the mainstream media, Klein was cast into a privileged position.

Le Couple témoin

At the other end of the spectrum, Polly Maggoo, Mister Freedom, and Le Couple témoin are all broad satirical comedies, Polly skewering the fashion industry, Mister Freedom American materialism and militarism, and Le Couple témoin a technological society that believes science capable of curing all social and emotional ills. These are each flawed, somewhat overextended films, but their inventiveness and their sheer peculiarity are still striking, and they each contain brilliant passages, above all the opening fashion show in Polly (with the models trapped in sheets of metal) and the confrontation between Mister Freedom and Moujik Man (Philippe Noiret in an unforgettable inflatable costume) in the Paris metro.

The festival also included Klein’s two most recent films, In & Out of Fashion (1998) (essentially a highlight reel of Klein’s film-work, and as a result rather redundant in this context) and Messiah (1999), perhaps this uncategorisable artist’s most uncategorisable film. The film’s soundtrack is devoted to a full performance of Handel’s ever-popular oratorio, while the imagery is made up of footage shot by Klein throughout the world (though primarily in the U.S.). The interaction between image and soundtrack is varied and deeply ambiguous. The tone is often one of bitter irony, with Handel’s sublime music confronting images of Las Vegas gamblers, participants in an annual Houston high-society ball, and atrocities in Africa. But at other moments, the effect is far more complex, above all during the passages involving the inmates at a Texas prison, or the recurring shots of amateur choirs, drawn from a great variety of groups (the Dallas police department, a Harlem drug-rehab center, a gay choir). It’s a remarkable experiment, equal parts avant-garde feature, documentary, travelogue and visual oratorio.

Klein dominated my own experience of the festival, but there was plenty more on offer, with sections devoted to Greek cinema, both new and old (including a special focus on Greek film noir), Balkan and New Spanish cinema, and film adaptations of the works of Nikos Kazantzakis, tributes to Sayles, the recently deceased Greek cult director Nikos Nikolaidis, Lee Chang-dong, Yasmin Ahmad and the great Mikio Naruse, as well as a broad selection of new films from all over the world. Among the tributes, I saw three of the Nikolaidis films and came away utterly baffled and alienated. But a couple of Naruse films, the masterpieces Midareru (Yearning, 1964) and Bangiku (Late Chyrsanthemums, 1954), healed the damage.

The best of the contemporary films I saw at the festival were Carlos Reygadas’ Stellet licht (Silent Light, 2007), Albert Serra’s Honor de cavalleria (Quixotic, 2006), and Cristian Nemescu’s California Dreamin’ (2007). Silent Light is the third film by the ever-provocative Mexican filmmaker, after Japón (2002) and Batalla en el cielo (Battle of Heaven, 2005), but here the provocation is of an entirely different sort. Silent Light pays homage (or borrows shamelessly, depending on your perspective) from Carl Dreyer’s Ordet (1955), positing a world suffused with spirituality, in which miracles can and do occur. But the most striking thing about the film is not its storyline, but its setting – Reygadas filmed Silent Light within a northern Mexican Mennonite community, and cast the film entirely with Mennonites from this community and others in Canada and Germany. And as a result, Silent Light boasts an uncanny and paradoxical combination of otherworldliness and specificity. Thanks also to the stunningly unique look of the film – with the disarming clarity of its light, its saturated colours, and the compositional dominance of the sky – this truly feels like a land set apart from the rest of the world, animated by a special force. The film has been criticised as calculated and derivative, but the sense of the spiritual and the magical that Reygadas is striving for strikes me as amply rooted in its cinematography, its sense of place, and its rhythms – as well as in its cast of characters. Despite some of Reygadas’ public comments (which suggest that his interest in the Mennonites is primarily as a gateway to some sort of abstract “universality”), this community and the individuals within it are fascinating in their own right – a great deal of the film’s power resides in the faces, bodies and gestures of the men and women who comprise this isolated and unique people. Reygadas’ concerns seem to emerge from his fascination with this community, rather than being imposed upon them.

Honor de cavalleria is a radically minimal take on Cervantes’ Don Quixote, a distillation of the novel that touches, rather obliquely, on a handful of the novel’s incidents, but focuses primarily on the spectacle of the aged Quixote and his portly sidekick Sancho inhabiting a natural world full of visual beauty, sound and sensuousness. This is a film in which the sounds of insects, wind and water take on a great weight, as Serra concentrates on the concrete reality of Quixote and Sancho’s solitary existences, and the dynamic at the heart of their relationship.

California Dreamin’

California Dreamin’ was left unfinished following the untimely death of its 27 year-old director Nemescu, but even in its current state, it’s an impressive achievement. The story of a mostly American NATO force passing by train through Romania on its way to Kosovo, California Dreamin’ is a panoramic portrait of a sleepy, backwater Romanian village, its various denizens, and the soldiers who find themselves stuck there when Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu), a corrupt, bitter railroad agent (and local power), refuses to allow them to pass. At 155 minutes, the film could be considered overlong, but it’s hard to believe the length is purely a function of its filmmaker’s death – the film rarely drags, and the running time is crucial in giving Nemescu time to capture the pace of life in the village, and to allow the situation at the film’s centre to escalate ever-so-gradually. His portrait of the village and of the culture-clashes, both gentle and more serious, between the villagers and the soldiers, is beautifully drawn – the film is often extremely funny, and the interactions ring true on both sides. But what saves the film from quirkiness or warmed-over comedy is the dark, intractable, but convincing figure at its centre – Nemescu provides Doiaru with a backstory that inspires a certain amount of sympathy, but he’s not afraid to make of him a strikingly hate-fueled, destructive force, the engine for a tragic denouement that’s equally attributable to the Americans’ arrogant ignorance. It’s an affectionate, comic and perceptive film that’s also a deeply disturbing reflection on the relations between the U.S. and the rest of the world. Nemescu’s early death is unquestionably a tragic loss.

There were disappointments in Thessaloniki as well – aside from the Nikolaidis films, Brillante Mendoza’s Foster Child (2007) (an affecting but somewhat overdetermined and schematic investigation into the foster-child system in the Philippines) and La Graine et le mulet (2007) [Abdellatif Kechiche’s badly bloated and terribly forced follow-up to L’Esquive (2003)] both left me cold. And the newly restored 1921 German adaptation/re-conception of Hamlet, with Asta Nielsen as a secretly-female version of the Danish prince, is historically fascinating and visually splendid, but its central conceit is a gimmick that undercuts the power of the play on almost every level. But these were minor disappointments in a festival that, as a whole, displayed an impressive depth and variety of programming, and that provided the rare opportunity not only to see William Klein’s film work, but to meet and discuss the films with Klein in-person.

Thessaloniki International Film Festival website: http://www.filmfestival.gr/default.aspx?lang=en-US&page=448